The Joy Wheel play. Photo by Ed Krieger

Frank Conlin (Dann Florek) has been working at the same job for 40 years and he’s about to make the speech of his life at his retirement party. Unfortunately, his wife Stella (Gina Hecht), who decided to get a tan so she’d look good for the occasion, fell asleep and got terribly sunburned instead. This sets up the first scene of “The Joy Wheel,” now enjoying its world premiere at The Ruskin Group Theatre.

They’ve been married for even longer than Frank’s been working at his company and there are signs that their marriage is experiencing some serious bumps in the road. Frank has been under the sway of his very intense and scary prepper friend Stew (Maury Sterling) and is waiting for the world to end, while Stella — a good Catholic girl — wants to go to Rome to confess her “impure thoughts” because she’s been “getting in touch with her vagina,” a word Frank can barely speak aloud.  “I want to get laid, Frank” she says. Her more liberated friend Margie (Lee Garlington) has persuaded Stella to join the cast of “Tales from My Vagina,” and has asked Frank to help build the set. He wants nothing to do with it.

The play is called “The Joy Wheel,” because they live in Joy, Illinois and recalling the carnival ride Frank rode as a kid. It’s a circular space like a carousel, with an inner conical shaped disk, that spins and increases in velocity, throwing most of the riders off, unless they hold close to the center. It’s a metaphor, albeit a slightly heavy one.

I felt a little like that ride while watching the play. Ian McRae also wrote “The Alamo,” which ran for four months at Ruskin Group last year and is moving on to Chicago. That play, like this one, is about how people deal with the changes that life forces on them, whether through personal circumstances or gentrification.

I don’t think this play will move on (I’d be happy to be wrong). To begin with, there’s a jokey quality to the dialogue that didn’t catch fire the night I was there – I kept feeling that the actors were waiting for laughs that didn’t come.

And I feel the characters stand in for mission statements, making them vehicles to deliver a message. Oddly I think that problem is with the two main characters, not the secondaries. Lee Garlington as Margie is utterly convincing as a brassy, thoroughly liberated woman who doesn’t care what people think of her, is exploring herself through the drama classes she’s taking, and knows how to hold her own against and even intimidate Maury when she’s at her most quiet. 

Maury Sterling as Stew is frighteningly convincing as a loony, militaristic, bullying right-wing, anti-government, paranoid conspiracy theorist prepper who has Frank under his spell – but heaven only knows why. Frank, the straight-down-the-middle, do-your-job-because-it’s-what’s-expected-of-you kind of guy, just doesn’t seem to me like someone who’d gravitate toward the nutcase that Stew is.

On the downside, Frank has also turned Stella’s beloved swimming pool – which even though she didn’t use much, she describes in a poetic reminiscence as having been a backyard magnet for neighborhood gatherings – into a bunker for the end times. To make matters worse, he’s spent their retirement funds to do so, in addition to joining a secret prepper group whose existence he’s been supporting as well.

There’s a lot going on here, maybe a bit too much. There’s Stella’s complaint about her name, which Marlon Brando ruined for her with his famous howling scene in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Her monologue about the swimming pool went on too long, as did the bit about her sunburn. Frank ultimately comes undone when he can’t get his retirement speech out and can only say, “This is my tuxedo,” over and over again, a humiliation despite having prepared for public speaking through Toastmasters. It’s also hard to buy how he takes the abuses Stew dishes out.

Stella becomes the hero, especially when she delivers the monologue from “Tales from My Vagina,” about finally releasing herself from the restraints (physical and emotional) of her girdle. And she saves Frank, Margie and herself from Stu, who’s gone completely off the rails, with her quiet practicality and reasoning, that since we’re watching a play, we can suspend disbelief but would never happen, as the kids say IRL (in real life).

The performers are terrific, I’m just not swayed by the play. However, that’s no reason for you not to go: you may resonate with the struggles each of these characters experiences as portrayed by really topnotch actors. Jason Alexander (of “Seinfeld” fame) directs.

“The Joy Wheel” has been extended through March 31, so grab a ticket while you can. The Ruskin Group Theatre is located at 3000 Airport Avenue in Santa Monica. Call 310-397-3244 or go online for tickets:

Sarah A. Spitz is an award-winning public radio producer, now retired from KCRW, where she also produced arts stories for NPR. She writes features and reviews for various print and online publications.

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